by Brian K. Asbury
Somewhere in the Balkans:
The masked, green-garbed man sat poring over papers that had been spread all over his antique desk. He tried to ignore the gangling, nightmarish figure of the Dominator looming over him, but it was becoming increasingly difficult. The wretched creature would shuffle impatiently on the spot.
At length he decided he could keep silent no longer. “Can you not keep still? How am I supposed to concentrate while you are doing that?”
“It isss cold here,” rasped the alien. “Why do you humansss live in sssuch cold, draughty placccesss?”
“We don’t. Not anymore. This was one of the ancestral homes of my family. I find it a convenient retreat. If it doesn’t suit you, that’s too bad. Put on something warmer instead of that ridiculous robe.”
The Dominator made an angry hissing sound. “How dare you ssspeak to me like that?”
“Very easily,” said the human. “Now stop posturing. I know very well that you are considered a disc-less pariah among your people. You have no status at all — whereas I am a nobleman, so…”
“A nobleman of an inferior ssspeccciesss!”
The man sighed. “Look, this sniping at one another helps neither of us. What is it you want, anyway?”
“Progresss, Count. Why isss it that you ssstill wassste time exxxamining thessse reportsss? Have you not enough recruitsss?“
“I need one more,” the man addressed as Count replied. “The group you want me to go up against isn’t particularly powerful, but they showed against your predecessor that they’re not to be underestimated. I want to be sure that we’re going to beat them. It helps if we can outnumber them.” He shook his head. “But these specimens your agents have found — fft! They show very little promise.”
“Then what would you have usss do?”
The Count held up a set of stapled sheets with a photograph clipped to them. “I want this one.”
The Dominator seemed to do a double-take. “But that one isss dangerousss! And a probable recruit for our enemiesss!“
“I know. That’s why I want to get to her first. Well? What do you say?”
“Risssky. Very risssky.”
The man sighed. “But she has enormous power. And I want her.”
The Dominator pondered this for several long seconds. Then he said, “Very well. We will try for thisss one. But be it upon your own head, Count, if thisss provesss to be a grave missstake!”
“I’ll take that risk,” said the Count.
Shepherd’s Bush, London:
Rod Reilly looked at his granddaughter with some concern. “Are you sure you want to go through with this, honey?”
The red-haired girl turned slightly toward him, much to the annoyance of the makeup girl who was working on her. “Yes I am, granddad. It’s something which has to be done. I can’t stay silent about this any longer.”
“Perhaps not. But remember who you’re up against here. From what you tell me, this guy Stacker has a real mean streak. He could make a lot of trouble for you, especially since you told him where he could stick his job!”
Becca Bennett, AKA Firebrand, ignored the protests of the makeup artist and turned to face her grandfather directly. “I can take care of myself,” she said. “But there are lots of others in my position who can’t.”
“In your position?”
“Young people who suddenly find themselves possessed of weird powers they neither asked for nor wanted, granddad. Look what happens to most of them — they’re considered freaks by ‘normal’ society and made to feel they can’t fit in. The lucky ones, like me, look normal enough and are able to conceal their powers — and some, also like me, decide to use their powers to help others. But not everybody has either the ability, the will, or the courage to do that, granddad — so they either become reclusive or lash out and turn to crime. What I want to campaign for is a fair deal from society. If any other minority group were treated the way meta-humans are, there’d be a major outcry.
“And then, there are people like Eddie Stacker, who just see us as a resource to be used for some extremely dubious purposes. I made a big mistake joining up with his department, and I got out when I realised what he wanted to do with that psi-phon machine that the Getaway Master had stolen. (*) It wasn’t to help people — it was to steal their powers and give them to ‘the right people’ — people he could control, in other words.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See Firestorm, the Nuclear Man: Cold Fusion.]
“Yeah. I see what you mean, honey. That is extremely sinister.”
“I thought you’d understand. You’re a hero yourself. You fought a war to protect the world from fascists like Stacker. I’d hate to see that effort wasted.”
Reilly chuckled. “I don’t know that I’d call myself a hero, hon. I fought in World War II and Korea, sure, but I never dressed up in multi-coloured longjohns. I did meet some strange people when I was on Special Operations, though.” His expression became wistful. “Doc, the ‘Cat, Mac, Number 99… they had some weird powers, but they were good people. (*) And they got a bum rap, too — so don’t think this stuff Stacker’s into is anything new, Becks. It’s been going on a long, long time.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See Showcase: The Sentinels of Magic: Times Past, 1948: Sacrifices Must Be Made.]
“Firebrand, remember? Call me Firebrand in public, please.”
At that point, a head topped in close-cropped orange hair popped around the door. “Miss Firebrand? Five minutes.”
“OK, thanks,” said Firebrand. She looked inquiringly at the makeup girl, who sighed in resignation, nodded, and began to pack her things away. Becca stood up. “How do I look?”
“Lovely — if a bit exposed, girl. Does the neckline of that outfit have to plunge quite that much?”
Firebrand grinned. “If it gets the attention I’m after, then it’s worth it, granddad. So — am I ready to go out on live prime-time TV on Britain’s most popular chat show?”
“As ready as you’ll ever be,” said Reilly. “Let’s go.”
They proceeded toward the studio, where Tony Witton’s prime-time chat show was recorded. “God! Did you just see who waved good luck to me?” gasped Becca.
“Elton John! I’ll swear it was Elton John!”
Rod Reilly laughed. “Come on, Bec — I mean, Firebrand. Don’t get starstruck.” He opened the door to let her through into the studio. “We don’t want you tongue-tied when you come face-to-face with Tony Witton, do we?”
“No,” sighed Firebrand. “And thanks again, granddad, for fixing this up for me.”
“Listen, kid, what’s the point of being the president of a successful public relations firm if I can’t fix up a TV appearance for my favourite granddaughter? Come on, knock ’em dead!”
A studio assistant stopped them and hushed them into silence. Across the other side of the studio, the show’s host, Tony Witton, was adjusting his famous toupee and fretting about whether his third guest, Oliver Reed, was going to behave himself tonight — or even turn up at all. Elsewhere, hands were making last-minute adjustments to Elton John’s piano. The makeup girl appeared from nowhere to attack Becca with a powder puff, almost causing her to sneeze.
Then the familiar strains of the Witton theme music filled the studio, and Tony Witton, standing at the front of the set, was being counted down. The studio audience applauded in response to the idiot board held up by the warm-up man.
“Thank you, thank you,” said Tony Witton, turning his famous Irish charm on the audience. “Ah, sure, but you’re a lovely audience tonight, and we’ve got some really smashin’ guests for ya. Later on, we’ll be hearing some music from superstar Elton John, who’ll be playing his new single live in the studio for your delight. We’ve also got the bad lad himself, Oliver Reed.” He treated the audience to one of his trademark mock grimaces at this point. “Ollie will be talking about his new film… or at least, we hope he will!” Laughter from the audience.
“But first, ladies, gentlemen and viewers, we have a beautiful young lady making her first appearance on the telly — or indeed, anywhere in public. She’s a lass with some remarkable attributes, so they tell me…” His eyebrow went up as if to suggest and I don’t just mean her powers. “…but she’s also a girl with a mission, and she wants to tell us all about it.
“But enough of my waffle. Ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together for Britain’s newest — and most scrumptious, if I may say so — super-hero… the lovely Firebrand!“
Under all the powder and paint, Firebrand felt her cheeks turn scarlet in reaction to this hyperbole, but she felt the studio hand tug at her arm, and she found herself walking forward toward Tony Witton. Across the other side, Rod Reilly had taken his seat in the audience, and she saw him giving the thumbs-up sign.
The cameras swivelled to focus on her…
…and suddenly all the lights went out.
“That’s it. Show’s over!” came the voice of Edward Stacker from somewhere overhead.
“Stacker? What the hell do you think you’re doing?” cried Firebrand. She raised her left arm, and it blazed with white light — an action rendered unnecessary by the studio’s emergency lighting abruptly kicking in.
Edward Stacker’s voice sounded again from a gantry on an upper level. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are sorry for this inconvenience, but we have received a warning that there is a bomb in the building. I must ask everyone to evacuate quickly but calmly. My associates will show you to the nearest exit.” And sure enough, men in dark suits were already shepherding the studio audience out of their seats, while others were hustling Tony Witton and the studio staff out of the doors. Rod Reilly looked across at his granddaughter in helplessness as he was carried along with the flow of bodies.
Firebrand extinguished her light but did not move off the spot. Stacker was already descending to floor level, and she waited until he was within earshot. “You swine,” she growled. “You complete and utter louse! Bomb scare my arse! You’re doing this to get at me, aren’t you?”
“I’m doing this to stop you making a complete and utter fool of yourself, old girl,” Stacker said as he approached, lighting up a cigarette in disregard of the studio regulations. “And to keep you out of jail.”
“When you joined the Department, you signed the Official Secrets Act, Becca,” he said. “That, as you know full well, prohibits you from discussing any sensitive information which you learned as a member of MI7. To do so is treason, and punishable by a very long imprisonment.”
The studio was by now empty except for the two of them. “What makes you think I was going to reveal any ‘sensitive information’? My intention was to appeal for the rights of oppressed meta-humans.”
Stacker puffed on his cigarette. “I know — including a potted account of what you consider to be my own dastardly plans for them.” He withdrew some papers from his pocket. “I know exactly what you told the producers of this show, Becca. The Department has eyes and ears everywhere.”
“Are you sure it’s British Intelligence you work for, not the KGB?” fumed Firebrand.
“Unworthy, old girl,” smirked Stacker. “Look, I understand how angry you were at that business with the psi-phon, but I’m sure we can work out our differences. Why don’t you and I slip quietly out of here to a restaurant and talk about it over a pleasant Italian meal, hmm? What do you say?”
“After this fiasco? You have got to be joking, Stacker. Why don’t you go and take a–?”
The sentence was never finished. A swirling vortex of light suddenly opened up a few feet away from them. “What the hell?” gasped Stacker. He reached for his gun.
Figures started to materialise within the light. One of them raised an arm, and suddenly the world went insane. The studio seemed caught up in a vortex of its own, cameras swirling and blending into the lighting rigs, audience seats rising up and crashing into the set like a crazy wave. Stacker suddenly realised he was on the ceiling. He felt himself falling, then twisting to land in a heap in the middle of one of the walls. The gun fell from his hand, elongating impossibly as it skittered away from him.
He was vaguely aware that other figures had emerged from the light, and that one of them, itself bathed in a purple glow, had grabbed Firebrand, who seemed as helpless as he. Then they were moving back into the vortex — and the vortex suddenly vanished.
The world snapped back to normal. Stacker lay on the floor, retching violently. When he recovered his composure, he realised that he was quite alone in the studio. Firebrand was gone.